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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

'Capitol Talk': Legislative Break; Infrastructure; Vaccines And Religious Freedom

'Capitol Talk' is MTPR's weekly legislative analysis program.
Montana Public Radio
Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative analysis program.

Tonight on Capitol Talk: Bills that are still alive, and bills that are gone at the midway point of the session. The effectiveness - and downside - of arguing "religious freedom" to get a bill passed. And the congressional delegation's tepid reaction to former Trump attorney Michael Cohen's testimony.

Sally Mauk: Welcome to Capitol Talk, our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk, and I'm joined by University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin, and Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels.

And Holly, the House and Senate have wrapped up bills to transmit to the other chamber this week and are now on a mid-session break. And one of the bills that made it through transmittal was Republican Eric Moore’s so-called IDEA Act, which is the likely vehicle for major infrastructure projects to pass this session, and which we talked about last week.

Holly Michels: Yes, so before we broke for transmittal we saw this infrastructure bill, which is a framework proposal, clear the house on a pretty decisive bipartisan vote: 100 votes to zero. I think that was pretty expected. This bill was worked on by Democratic and Republican senators and representatives as well, so when it came to the House it already had a lot of support. This bill was under that transmittal deadline because it is just a framework; it doesn't have any projects or money attached to it. What it does do is set limits for bonding: how much the state can take on and put aside money for infrastructure projects. Moore's hope is that by creating this framework some members of the Republican caucus who've been resistant to debt in the past will be more comfortable with that idea.

Mauk: Well here's how Moore described the bill.

“This bill is all about consistency. It's about doing a little something every two years, not doing $100 or $200 million in bonding one year and then not doing anything for the next decade,” Moore says.

Mauk: And consistency would be welcome among those who support infrastructure projects, which is pretty much everybody. It's not a done deal though, Holly, and the governor has also not really weighed in “yea” or “nay” yet.

Michels: The governor is saying he would like to see what the full infrastructure proposal will look like before he says if he supports this or not. What lawmakers in the Capitol are talking about is three bills that sort of put this infrastructure puzzle together. Moore’s is that first piece. The second is a bill with the actual projects to consider. That's going to be a Republican reworking of what the governor initially proposed at the start of the session, which Republicans made clear last month they were going to overhaul. A third piece of the proposal is a bill that would set up language clarifying that money the state would put aside for infrastructure could be tapped in tight financial times to help balance the state budget. We expect to see the rest of that package sometime in March after lawmakers come back from transmittal. Democrats have said they support the idea of it, though they might want to talk about changing some of the limits set in the framework bill. So we'll see where that goes.

Mauk: Lawmakers, Holly, have also reached a compromise on legislation to end the statute of limitations on bringing criminal charges against people accused of sex crimes and to extend the time to bring civil suits. And Republican Rep. Bill Mercer had objections to the original bill, but he seems happy with the compromise.

We need to ensure that an investigation is undertaken. We need to ensure that a prosecution is undertaken in the event that there is proof of child sexual abuse, and we need to do everything we can to ensure that those predators are then locked up,” Mercer says.

Mauk: And obviously this is an effort to bring more charges against people guilty of this crime. And this compromise, though, still has a long ways to go, Holly.

Michels: It does. So what we saw this week is a bill that came out of a request of the House Judiciary Committee cobbling together other proposals we saw earlier in the session. It does eliminate the statute of limitations for sex crimes against children on the criminal side. But as we heard Mercer say, there were concerns on the civil side. What Mercer wants is to push people to file claims early to be able to catch serial predators. Rep. Shane Morigeau, who carried the bill that would have eliminated the statute of limitations on the civil side, is pretty disappointed in this proposal, but said he's supporting it because he wants to see something done this session.

What it ends up doing is giving people now to the age of 27 to bring civil claims. That's an increase of six years from what state law is now. It doesn't change another part of current state law that gives people three years from the time they realize they were a victim of a crime to bring that civil claim. But what it does do is carve out a two-year window for civil claims in the case where someone has admitted to a crime, which is what we've seen in Miles City with James Jensen, who was an athletic trainer there who has admitted to molesting teenagers and reached out to his victims after the statute of limitations had expired. This also does increase mandatory reporter laws, which are laws dictating people have to report suspected abuse. And it would make sure those reports, which are now sent to the state Health Department, would get to county attorneys for investigations. Which goes back to what Mercer wants about being able to investigate as these crimes are actually happening.

Mauk: It's definitely a step forward on efforts to increase the prosecution of these crimes.

Holly, some bills to loosen Montana's laws on childhood vaccinations did not make it through transmittal, and one has to believe that recent serious measles outbreaks in Washington and Oregon, among other states, had an impact on their defeat in the Montana Legislature.

Michels: Yeah, I think it's important to know about those outbreaks as this debate was going on. There's also five cases of mumps that have been confirmed here in Bozeman; so those are pretty close to home. One of these bills would have essentially eliminated the requirement for children to be vaccinated before attending day care. Montana requires a very basic childhood immunizations set for children to go to day care, and if this would have passed we would have been the only state in the nation not to do that. It died on a 32 to 68 vote. There was another bill that would have changed state law. Right now foster parents who have biological children that aren't vaccinated because of religious exemptions, they're not allowed to take in children who need foster care into their homes. That bill was defeated on a 40 to 60 vote. The third bill that we saw go down in the House would have let physician’s assistants and some nurses sign medical exemption forms for vaccines for kids who are about school age. The state Health Department also reviews those forms now and schools have questions about their validity. And this bill would have not allowed that. That also died on a 38 to 62 vote. We saw a lot of support from parents for these bills in committee, saying that religious objections to vaccinating their children or that their children have been hurt by vaccinations. On the flip side of that we heard from parents whose children are too young to be vaccinated and said that unvaccinated kids around their children will put their kids at risk. We also heard from a mother whose son was going through treatment for cancer and had lost his previous immunity, so he relies on what's called 'herd immunity,' or being surrounded by vaccinated people to stay healthy.

Mauk: Rob, Hamilton Republican Theresa Manzella was among those who argued it’s religious discrimination to force parents to immunize their children if they have a religious objection.

It is time that we, as their representatives, stood up for their individual God-given rights,” Manzella says.

Mauk: And this has become, Rob, a common argument for conservatives on a number of issues, not just vaccinations.

Saldin: It has, Sally. And you know I imagine some people are doing that cynically because they think it's politically advantageous – it's a way to move things that might not otherwise move. But you know it's also the case that for many others, including some of those who spoke on the House floor this week, it really is a reflection of deeply held beliefs. And I see that in the way in which these appeals to religious freedom are often tinged with a kind of anger and sometimes seem even a little desperate. These anti-vaccine bills are a good example of this. I think David Dunn from Kalispell sponsored one of these bills and I found this very revealing. He emphasized what he called the bullying tactics of parents and popular culture. Theresa Manzella’s comments on the House floor, we got a little taste of them. She went on and talked about a number of other issues. Her comments: very emotional, very angry.

Well this reflects something that a lot of people who aren't religious conservatives just don't fully appreciate, and that is the degree to which religious conservatives feel alienated from American society. So if you're, say, a pro-life, anti-gay marriage evangelical, you know, what do you see when you look at our society? Well I think you see a lot of hostility that's directed at you. Politics is moving against you; the courts are ruling against you; the culture is even worse. You have all these privileged elite people who were pointing at you, condemning you as a bigot, as deplorable clinging to your guns, and religion and so on. Well it's not entirely surprising that this stuff stokes a kind of grievance mentality, a sense that we've moved beyond the normal politics and into a kind of apocalyptic battle for our existence. Now of course we could debate the extent to which those perceptions are accurate, but this grievance mentality on the Christian right is a real thing and explains a lot, I think, about our politics today.

Mauk: What would be the downsides of this argument though for the religious right? Because here you have a Republican-dominated, fairly conservative legislature not buying the argument that they're making.

Saldin: Right, all that being said, I mean, I think we can understand where they're coming from, at least those who are sincere about it. But all that said, these frequent invocations of religious liberty, you know I'd worry actually that at least in some cases they might actually do some long-term harm to that cause. And vaccines are a pretty good case in point. You know, Holly, as you mentioned, most people, for good reason, don't see this as simply an individual choice, right? Because by not vaccinating your kid, well, you're putting my kid at risk. And with regard to these specific bills, you know, you could also say “look, no one's requiring you to send your kid to day care; No one's requiring you to be a foster parent.” So it raises this question about whether you're going to win any converts on these kinds of issues. I kind of doubt it.

Mauk: And also you could argue that you could make the religious freedom argument about anything; You could pick an issue and there would be no end to the argument, Right? There was a white supremacist Aryan Nations Church, for example. It becomes so extreme that people are put off.

Saldin: Yeah, right. So once you extend it to all these different cases then it really kind of loses its importance. And again I think a lot of these people who make arguments on these grounds do so from a real place of conviction, but once you start extending it to everything under the sun it loses some of its power and force.

Mauk: Holly, a bill by Sen. Diane Sands to move oversight of for-profit schools for troubled teens looked to be dead in committee, but has risen from the ashes. That was a bit of a surprise this week.

Michels: So this bill was, as you said, dead in committee on a tied 6-6 vote in the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee. This bill would have gotten rid of a board under the state Labor Department that oversees treatment programs and just moved it to the state Health Department. After that tie vote, Sands had said that she would try to blast the bill on the Senate floor which would have required two-thirds majority of the Senate to revive it. Later in the week she said she'd just rather ask the committee to reconsider. There were some proxy votes on that the first time, which is when a senator can't be at the meeting so a fellow member of their party cast the vote for them. Sands said she wanted to see how the vote went with more of the committee in attendance, and it turned out the way she wanted. It went from a 6-6 to 7-3 vote. There might have been more going on in the background there, but that's all that anyone would comment about this week. So we'll see that bill head to the Senate floor sometime after the transmittal break.

Mauk: Rob, Montana's congressional delegation had a generally, I think, tepid reaction to the public testimony this week of Donald Trump's former attorney, Michael Cohen, who called the president a “con man,” a “racist” and a “cheat:” An astonishing description of a sitting president.

Saldin: That's for sure. But I think you're right, Sally, in terms of the response of the congressional delegation. I mean, these statements could have been drafted days ahead of Cohen's appearance before the House committee. The reality is, of course, these guys have to say something, but in these kinds of situations you often get these statements in which they say something; but not really. But I guess not to worry; there will be more opportunities for these guys to comment on the president. And the other reality is that, really, short of some stunning new bit of information regarding all of these issues around the president, we basically already know how they're going to come down, Right?

Mauk: And one wonders what stunning means anymore.

Next week, guys, I think we will talk about what the second half of the session might look like as lawmakers come back from their transmittal break – a break that's a little bit longer than usual, but I don't think anyone's going to complain about that.

You've been listening to Capitol Talk, our weekly legislative analysis program. I'm Sally Mauk, and I've been speaking with University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin and Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels. Holly, Rob, enjoy the break as best we can in this weather, and we'll talk next week.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
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